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Dave Smith and Roger Linn --
The Dead Presidents Society

The Thursday morning customers at the Berkeley, California, coffee house where the Dead Presidents Society holds its weekly meetings probably have no idea that several of the most influential figures in the music industry are seated in the corner. These men include Roger Linn, inventor of the first digital sampling drum machine and the Akai MPC; Max Matthews, a former engineer for Bell Labs acknowledged as the father of computer music; Keith McMillen, the founder of Zeta Music and a renowned electronic instrument designer; Tom Oberheim, the inventor of the first polyphonic synthesizer; and Dave Smith, designer of the Prophet synths and a visionary pioneer of the MIDI standard. Joining these gents today is Larry Heil of Apple.

Even fewer coffee shop customers are aware that the future of music technology is being shaped before them as they sip their lattes and peck on their laptops. For the last five years, this informal setting has served as a think tank where several of the music industry's greatest minds (other regular participants not present today include Don Buchla, John Chowning, John Lazzaro, Ingrid Linn and David Wessel) gather to freely share the ideas, concepts and dreams that will eventually effect the way music is made, played and listened to.

"It's a great community," says Roger Linn. "We called it the Dead Presidents Society because many of us have been presidents of companies that have died. It started with Tom Oberheim and me when Tom was working with the university here in Berkeley on some advanced hardware projects. He suggested that we get together in the morning once a week. Soon other people started coming down, and it's really grown."

The forthcoming LinnDrum II co-designed by Linn and Smith (anticipated for release in late 2008) reflects the spirit of collaboration that brings the "Dead Presidents" together. While Linn and Smith previously worked together on the Roger Linn Design AdrenaLinn, and that product inspired the concept for the Dave Smith Instruments Evolver (the first in a line of DSI products that now includes the Poly Evolver and Prophet '08 synths), the LinnDrum II is the first product built by both companies together. Two versions will be produced: the LinnDrum II digital drum machine/sequencer and the LinnDrum II Analog, which adds a four-voice analog synthesizer and 32 dual-function knobs to the package.

After spending the morning enjoying heady caffeinated drinks and stimulating conversation, we joined Linn and Smith at Linn's design studio to find out more about the creative forces that brought them together.

Guitar Center: Guitar Center: The Dead Presidents Society upholds a sense of community and collaboration that is rare in most industries these days. What inspired this free sharing of ideas?

Roger Linn: Regarding my collaboration with Dave, for example, it's partially out of necessity because our little companies are too small to tackle big complex products. We can't afford hundreds of engineers like the large companies, but it's amazing how much we can do when we combine forces. My company is basically my wife Ingrid and myself. Dave's company is himself and two other people. Customers will call for tech support, and after we've been talking a while they'll ask, 'Who am I speaking with?' When they find out it's me they wonder if everyone else has called in sick.

Dave Smith: As tiny as we are, our customer support is much better than what large companies can offer. If somebody has a problem, they send us an email, we respond immediately and we fix the problem within a couple of days. You don't have to go through an endless maze of telephone menus, leave a message, send your product in and wait six months to get it back.

Linn: The wonderful thing is we can operate as a one- or two-man company today because there are many outside services we can call on. Both of us use the same manufacturing company up in the Santa Rosa area. We hire them to make 500 or 1,000 units at a time, and they order the parts and assemble the units. They even hold the stock for us and ship directly to dealers for us. If you design the product right so people don't have to ask a lot of questions and you write a good manual, you don't have to do that much tech support.

GC: The Bay Area seems like a unique place to operate a music technology company. There seems to be a wealth of talented electronic music entrepreneurs and visionaries concentrated in a relatively small area.

Linn: One thing that's nice about working in Northern California is there are so many consultants and people with specific skill sets in this area.

Smith: There really aren't that many people in the world who do what we do. That's part of what keeps it a smaller club. We know most of the people who are designing synths, for example some of the engineers in Japan and those in Sweden and Germany who make the Nord Lead and the Access Virus. The whole industry has always been a tightly knit community. Everybody is friendly with each other, and we're not trying to knock each other off.

Linn: The bigger companies kind of love us. We don't have that big of a market, and we give them all of their ideas. [Laughs] One of the great things about the music industry is it's about individuality. That leaves space for the big companies that want to make commodity products and for small companies like us that have something unique to say. We're small enough that we don't need to make as much money as they do, so we can serve a smaller market of people who have a particular interest. The big companies don't care about us. We're giving them new ideas and maybe teaching their customers what they'd like to have. We can also turn on a dime a lot faster than they can.

Smith: We're more craftsmen. To me it's about bringing personality into a musical instrument. I think that personality is missing in most mass produced electronic music products. When guitar players choose an instrument, they don't just choose a Les Paul or a Strat, they also choose a particular one. It has to be the right color, the right feel, built in the right place at the right time, and it talks to them. It has only three or four knobs but they always do the same thing and they get used to everything it does. That's missing with most keyboards these days. The Prophet '08 has a constrained number of knobs and it doesn't do everything. It doesn't have 35 submenus of all these features that I could have put in it. I like the idea of offering a concise feature set that's deep enough to keep you busy but it's immediately accessible. You can learn it quickly, but you can dig deeper if you want to. It's a very specific musical instrument with its own personality.

GC: A big part of a synth or any musical instrument's appeal is how it inspires you. When an instrument is truly musical the ideas start flowing and you feel like making music with it.

Smith: The payoff for me as a designer is when I watch somebody play it for the first time and they smile. And, we all love seeing what musicians do with our instruments - we of course include features that we believe will create interesting sounds, but players will always surprise us by using our instruments in a different way than we expected.

Linn: Ultimately the public decides what are the great sounds. Dave and I both own a keyboard that only has one preset. It's called a piano. It doesn't have a pitch bend wheel and it can't do organ sounds, but people still value it. As designers, we're trying to figure out what the next popular sounds will be. So we make something with a little more flexibility than the average instrument you can buy - then the musicians ultimately decide what are the best musical capabilities from our instruments.

GC: You've worked together before, but the LinnDrum II is the first product that really brings your collaboration to the forefront.

Linn: It's a fun process. Dave and I are very different. We argue about things all the time. We don't agree about anything. We both realize that there are parts that both of us lack. Dave tends to be a bottom-up designer. He's great with the circuits and everything that makes it work. I'm a top down guy. I start from a 3D rendering and screens and functions. We just meet somewhere in the middle. It works out very well. This is a complex product and it's scary for one person to do. It's nice to share the responsibility and ideas. Both of us have had products that we thought were great, but failed. We're not infallible.

GC: So many of your products were ahead of their time though, like the Sequential Circuits Prophet VS and the Linn 9000.

Smith: Exactly. Many times they failed because they were too early for the market. This is a much bigger project than our previous projects over the last few years. There's a huge amount of technology and engineering in the LinnDrum II. Sometimes it's almost too much for two of us by ourselves, so that's why we bring in outside experts. It's a big project and we want to do it right. We've been around long enough to know what not to do and what it has to be when it's done. We'll wait until it's right before we ship it.

Linn: I'm not a real engineer. Dave is the engineer. I'm more of a "feel" engineer. I know enough about everything to get in trouble. I need guys like Dave to help me out. I stay on the conceptual level and make all the pretty pictures.

GC: There have been numerous drum machines over the years, but the concept you established with the MPC has become the standard.

Linn: We're in a time of transition in music. There are new instruments and new ways to play music. People aren't playing violins and clarinets as much, but they're using turntables and computers. A lot of new ideas pop out and some of them become instruments. One of them was the drum machine. In a sense, the velocity- and pressure-sensitive pad matrix I first introduced with the Linn 9000 has established itself as a new human-to-music interface, and musicians have learned specific gestures on this interface. Everybody likes the 4x4 interface, but I think that the 2x8 interface on the LinnDrum II blows that away.

Smith: The 2x8 interface is also great for the techno guys who are used to Roland TR-series drum machines and 16-step programming.

Linn: The vast majority of people are using computers to make music, but as a result the human interface is being sacrificed. Computer users are assembling things together like a pad interface and a keyboard and some sliders and knobs, but it's not really a well-integrated system. It's nice when you can put most of what a musician wants together into one box with an interface that's always there and always works, and you can take it to a gig to do a live performance. That's the primary orientation of the LinnDrum II. You use it the same way live as you would in the studio. You don't have to worry about drivers crashing or losing power and not having things come back up the way they should.

Smith: It gets pretty silly to keep adding these interfaces to a laptop when one concise instrument can do the job.

The drum machine pad interface has survived about 20 years now, so people think of it as an instrument.

Linn: We make the brushes and the artist decides what to paint with them. Sometimes we may develop a feature that we think is useless and the artist may think it's very good. Sometimes it's the other way around. It's like Darwinism. Art decides what will survive.

Interview: Chris Gill
Photos: Ryan Hunter

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